October 28, 2018

Halloween Treats: A Big Cat, Monsters in Leominster, and More Ghost Chronicles

It's hard to believe Halloween is only three days away. Here are a few treats to get you through the next few days that I've found in the media. 


A few weeks ago I posted about an alleged mountain lion sighting in an urban section of Brookline, Massachusetts. I didn't really know what to make of it, but now I wonder if there really is some large cat roaming around town. On October 5, someone called the Brookline Police to report a bobcat on Shaw Road. Here is the item from the October 11 issue of The Brookline Tab:

Bobcat on Shaw Road: At 10:51 a.m., a caller reported seeing a bobcat cross the road and said the animal was "much, much larger than a domestic animal." The caller thought the area should be checked. 

Shaw Road is several miles from the location of the first sighting, and is also in an area with more open space (cemeteries, parks, and woods). While the first sighting happened at night, this second sighting happened in broad daylight. Bobcats can live in suburban areas so maybe one is indeed living in Brookline?


The Boston Herald ran an article about paranormal activity in Leominster, Massachusetts. The October 21 article titled "Talk of UFOs, ghosts turns Massachusetts City into 'Leomonster'" focuses mainly on Leominster resident Ronny LeBlanc who in 2016 wrote a book about his hometown called Monsterland. LeBlanc collected hundreds of stories for his book, so it sounds like something I should add to my holiday wish list. Here is an interesting quote from the Herald piece:

LeBlanc took the Herald to all the hot spots around Leominster, like St. Leo’s cemetery on Lancaster Street where in the 1960s, a couple witnessed a flying saucer emerge from fog, prompting them to call the police. The man who saw the saucer claimed his hand and body was frozen upon pointing to the saucer, only to be released when it flew away. 
Leominster State Forest, another spot mentioned in LeBlanc’s book, has yielded several reports of Bigfoot prints and Sasquatch sightings. 
LeBlanc said he isn’t completely sure why these encounters continue to happen in Leominster, but “it might be something that we don’t want to know.”

Another Leominster resident, Susan Spuhler, had this to say: “There are certain energetic lines that run around the earth. And Leominster, from what I’ve studied over time, has a certain energetic quality to it,” she said. 

Photo from Boston Herald. 
I applaud anyone who investigates the strange stories and folklore of their hometowns. Books like Monsterland are valuable records of what people in 21st century New England believe about the places they live. They are also good to read on dark autumn nights!


Speaking of spooky books, Weiser Books kindly sent me a copy of Maureen Wood and Ron Kolek's book More Ghost Chronicles to review. Wood and Kolek are paranormal investigators who host a popular radio show called Ghost Chronicles, and their book highlights fifteen recent investigations. 

Twelve of them take place across New England. Wood and Kolek visit old lighthouses, haunted restaurants, charming inns (built next to creepy old cemeteries), and even a few places I've visited like Dudley Road and the Freetown State Forest. 

My trip to Dudley Road was relatively uneventful, but theirs is a little more lively. For example, here is an excerpt where Kolek and Wood try to communicate with the spirits of Dudley Road using a pendulum on a dark night. They are trying to figure out how many ghosts haunt the road.

The pendulum responded quickly, while Maureen continued her questioning. "Are there more than one, more than three? Are there more than five?" 
Once again, the answer was a yes.  
I asked, "Do they know the rumors about the haunting of Dudley Road?" 
Maureen nodded. "Yes. Yes, they do." 
I continued. "Do they play games with the people who come to look for them?" 
The pendulum swung back and forth. She laughed out loud. "Sometimes." (More Ghost Chronicles, p. 30)

Watch out for self-aware ghosts, I guess. Although my trip to Dudley Road was peaceful, I did find the Freetown State Forest to be kind of unnerving when I visited although I can't pinpoint why. Was it the sounds of gunfire from a nearby firing range? The group of drugged-out teenagers we encountered on a secluded path? The sound of dead trees creaking in the wind? All of these?

Or perhaps it was really the puckwudgies, small malevolent fairies who are said to live in the forest. Wood and Kolek have an even more unnerving visit than I did, with Wood becoming briefly and frighteningly possessed by the spirit of a puckwudgie. This is why I only go to these places during the day!

So, if you like good old-fashioned ghost investigations with creaking doors, rosaries that shatter, and misty figures advancing through the dark woods I think you will like More Ghost Chronicles. And at this time of year, who doesn't like those things?

Happy Halloween everyone!

October 21, 2018

Halloween Love Magic and Summoning Demons

People in 19th century New England often celebrated Halloween by performing love magic. Halloween did have the spooky supernatural aspect we love today but it was also a time for romance and discovering your future spouse. This was particularly true for girls or young women, who would perform a variety of rituals aimed on Halloween night designed to identify who they would marry.

These rituals were often called "projects," which sounds much less threatening than ritual, rite, or even magic spell. Still, they are clearly folk magic and folklore books from the 19th century contain many accounts of Halloween projects. They were performed with simple ingredients that almost anyone could acquire, like a cabbage, cornmeal, or a small dish of dirt.

One popular project requires nothing more than a ball of string. To find out the identity of your true love, do the following at midnight on Halloween. Take a ball of string and walk to a well, an old barn or an abandoned house. If none of those are available even a cellar or basement will do. You just need an empty structure of some kind. 

Turn your back and throw the ball of string over your shoulder into the barn, well or cellar. Then, with your back still turned, began to wind the string back into a ball. As you wind it, recite the following rhyme:

I wind, I wind, my true love to find,
The color of his hair, the clothes he’ll wear,
The day he is married to me.

Your true love should appear and wind the string with you. 

Someone in Maine contributed that to Fanny Bergren's 1896 book Current Superstitions. I can see why it would be appealing to a young person. You get to go someplace spooky at midnight (on Halloween no less), there's a special rhyme, and love is involved. It all sounds like harmless fun, right?

I think so, but apparently not everyone shares my opinion. A cautionary tale about this type of "project" appears in Frederic Denison's 1878 book Westerly (Rhode Island) and Its Witnesses. According to Denison, during the Revolutionary War two young women named Hannah Maxson and Comfort Cottrell were staying at the Westerly home of one Esquire Clark. One day while Mrs. Clark was bed-ridden from illness and the Esquire was away on business the two young ladies had to entertain themselves.

They decided to do some magic. Taking two balls of yarn, Hannah and Comfort went to a well and "tried to bring their beaus, by throwing each her ball of yarn into the well, and winding them off while they severally repeated a verse from the Scriptures, backwards." Completing their project, they proceeded to the front of the house to await the arrival of their true loves.

As the sun began to set they saw a tall figure walking down the road towards them. At first they were excited. Was it a rich handsome man? But as the figure drew nearer their excitement became terror. The tall figure was a monster! "It was some eight or ten feet high, and marched with a stately step, but with eyes, as they said, 'as big as saucers,' and breathing flame from his distended jaws." Hannah and Comfort fled into the house and hid behind the bed where Mrs. Clark lay ill and incapacitated. 

At this time Esquire Clark arrived home, entering through the back door. He could see through the glass panes over the front door "the steady unmistakable gaze of the demon" looking into the house.  Being a pious man, Esquire Clark immediately began to pray. At the sound of the holy words the monster departed into the darkness. Alas, its departure was too late for Mrs. Clark, whose weakened constitution could not endure the supernatural excitement and who died soon afterwards. The two young women gave up their experiments in magic and became devout Christians.

Frederic Denison found this story in a November 1860 issue of The Narragansett Weekly. It's author was one Deacon William H. Potter, a former resident of Westerly. Being a religious man, I guess his aim was to show the dangers of toying with the supernatural. I'm sure you noticed that the women in this story don't recite a cute little rhyme while winding the yarn. Instead, they recite Christian psalms backwards, a practice associated with summoning the Devil. The moral: folk magic will really summon the Devil, so don't do it!

Deacon Potter adds a strange epilogue to the story. Not being content to illustrate the dangers of magic, he goes on to claim the magic was not even real. According to Potter, the demon was actually a young neighbor, Daniel Rogers, who had seen Hannah and Comfort working on their project and decided to play a prank on them. Once it began to get dark he put a large pumpkin on his head and walked towards their house. He initially planned to reveal his identity but decided not to after seeing the terror he caused and learning of Mrs. Clark's death. Only seventy years later did he tell the truth about what had happened.

Gladys Tantaquidgeon, an anthropologist and Mohegan medicine woman, recorded a similar story from the Wampanoag of Martha's Vineyard in 1928. In this version of the story, a minister on Martha's Vineyard had four daughters. One night while he was away preaching they decided to try a "project." The details are not given, but it involved removing their undergarments and hanging them by the fireplace. Once they complete their spell a storm erupts and they hear something clawing at the door. The four sisters hide in terror. When their father comes home he sees a large monster, "part human and part animal" trying to enter the house, which departs upon his arrival. He warns his daughters to never play with magic again. 

Tantaquidgeon also recorded a version of the string project in 1928, but with a slightly different rhyme: "Here I wind, here I wind, here I hope my true love find." Her informant told her that your beloved would emerge from the well or cellar holding the other end of the string. 

The Puritan clergy who led New England's 17th century colonization were opposed to magic in all its forms, and you can still see that mentality lingering centuries later in these stories. I think you can also see concerns about women's independence and sexuality as well. These stories say, "See what happens when women try to control their own love lives? The Devil gets involved." Sadly I think that's another mentality that still lingers today. 

Note: I found the Tantaquidgeon material in William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes.

October 16, 2018

Peabody's Witch Rock: Occult Symbols Connected to The Salem Witches?

Do you have an extra $600,000 sitting around? Are you interested in New England history or witchcraft? If so you might want to purchase the house at 348 Lowell Street in Peabody, Massachusetts, which recently went on the market. The house was the home of John Proctor, one of the people executed during the Salem witch trials.

Proctor, who was immortalized in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, was a farmer in Salem Village. One of his servants, a young woman named Mary Warren, was one of the afflicted girls who accused dozens of innocent people of witchcraft. Perhaps if Proctor had played along he would have escaped the gallows, but he didn't. Instead he told Warren that she was faking her symptoms and if she didn't stop he'd beat her. He also threatened to beat John Indian, a slave and the husband of Tituba, when he accused Proctor's wife of being a witch. Needless to say, Proctor's doubtful and threatening attitude didn't sit well with the afflicted girls and they soon accused him of being a witch too.

Proctor was executed on August 19, 1692. His wife escaped the gallows because she was pregnant at the time and did not give birth until after the trials had ended.

The real estate listing for the Proctor house claims it dates to 1638, but the Peabody Historical Society says it is unclear how old most of the current structure is. It's likely that multiple additions and renovations have been made over the property's 300+ years of occupation. It does have six bedrooms, which is nice, and has a dining room "which can accommodate your largest holiday gathering." There's also an inground pool.

Image from Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, No. 1.
This weekend as I was taking the train to Salem for Halloween festivities two friends reminded me of something I had forgotten: there is a large mysterious boulder near the Proctor House called Witch Rock. I wrote about it a few years ago in my book Legends and Lore of The North Shore (2014). The boulder is covered with occult symbols that may (or may not) be connected with the Salem witch trials.

The boulder was first discovered in 1978 by a group of archaeologists surveying Peabody. They were intrigued by the stone's faintly visible sigils which were done in black paint. (The photo above has been retouched to highlight them.) To quote one of the archaeologists who found the boulder:
The central symbol, which is over a meter in diameter, is a pentacle or five-pointed star with point downward surrounded by concentric circles. The appearance of the star has been heightened by infilling. Between the circles at the points of the star are poorly preserved cabalistic designs. The lesser symbols are a caduceus and a composite figure made from the sign for Aries (reversed) and the Cross of Lorraine or the Archiepiscopal Cross. (Richard Michael Gramly, "Witchcraft Pictographs from Near Salem, Massachusetts." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, no. 1(1981), pp. 113 - 116.)
When I first heard about Witch Rock I thought "Oh, that has got to be a fake." The archaeologists considered this a possibility too, but they tested the paint and discovered that it was not modern paint. It was made from hematite and either milk or egg whites. In other words, not something that you can buy at Home Depot and was probably not applied to the rock by teenagers who liked Black Sabbath. It was probably quite old and had survived the harsh winters and summers only because the rock faces south and had a very rough surface which held the paint.

But just how old are those sigils really? Archaeologist Richard Michael Gramly conjectured in 1981 that the boulder was the work of 17th century Salem Villagers who were afraid of witches. Although the reverse pentagram is often a symbol of the Devil, Gramly notes that it has also been used to avert the evil eye.
The entire composition would appear to be a warning against witches. Freshly painted and exposed to view the granite block with its pictographs would have drawn the attention of every passerby. If it were painted in the late seventeenth century, the composition would have sheltered nearby residents from all sorts of evil. The pictographs are not likely to be the work of witches but rather of people mortally afraid of their powers. (Richard Michael Gramly, "Witchcraft Pictographs from Near Salem, Massachusetts." Historical Archaeology, Vol. 15, no. 1(1981), pp. 113 - 116.)
There is one problem with this theory: there's no evidence that the people of 17th century Salem Village used these symbols for defensive magic or even used them at all. There's lots of documentation about the types of defensive magic Puritans did use, including witch bottles, horseshoes hung over entrances, daisy wheel carvings, and iron implements hidden in walls. Inverse pentagrams and the caduceus aren't mentioned in those documents. The Puritan clergy hated all magic, even the benign kind, so it seems likely a giant sigil-covered boulder at the epicenter of the Salem witch trials would have drawn their attention and ire. But it didn't, so perhaps the symbols didn't exist in 1692.

Gramly does briefly also consider the possibility that people may have painted Witch Rock in 1892 as parts of the bicentennial observances of the Salem trials. Lectures were held in the area at that time and witch trial souvenirs were sold so perhaps someone created the sigils as part of the commemorative events. He thinks the paint used is older than the 1890s though. 

Jeff Belanger points out in his book Weird Massachusetts that the symbols resemble some in Francis Barrett's 1801 book The Magus. Perhaps occultists painted the symbols on the boulder in the 19th century. But then again, Barrett used lots of older grimoires to compose The Magus - he was not the first person to use these symbols. They existed before the book's publication.

I don't think the mystery of Witch Rock will be resolved given the current information we have. It's just one of those weird and interesting things about New England. I have never been to Witch Rock, but my friends who have been say it is on private property and is surrounded by poison ivy. Salvatore Trento includes a map in his 1997 book Field Guide to the Mysterious Places of Eastern North America, but I do not know if it is accurate. Trento also notes that Witch Rock is in Danvers. It's an easy mistake to make and is one that I unfortunately included in my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore

There are several other boulders in New England named Witch Rock, including one in Rochester, Massachusetts and another (well, technically Witches Rock) in Bristol, Connecticut. Perhaps destinations for autumn road trips?

October 08, 2018

A Gargoyle Sighting in Massachusetts?

Most paranormal reports fit into a few categories. There are your Bigfoot sightings, your ghostly encounters, and your UFO sightings. Those are the big three. Then there are also regional categories, such as the pukwudgies that people see in New England, and categories that appear only for a short time, like the creepy clown craze that swept the country a few years ago. 

It's not one of the biggest categories, but there has been an increase in winged humanoid reports recently. I think the most famous winged humanoid in the United States is the Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. I first learned of the Mothman back in the 1980s when I read John Keel's famous book The Mothman Prophecies. It's a freaky and unsettling tome that really goes down the rabbit hole of paranoia, but the Mothman himself didn't really get much mainstream acknowledgement until the Richard Gere film of The Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002. Like the book, it's weird and creepy.

Mothman painting by famous pulp artist Frank Frazetta. 
The Mothman's popularity has grown since then, and this cryptid, who in the book and film is an eerie omen of doom, has now become a cute internet meme, particularly on Tumblr. For example see below:
Adorable Mothman from this Tumblr blog. 
I don't think the Mothman has been seen in New England (please tell me if I am wrong), but another weird winged humanoid recently was. Someone in Abington, Massachusetts saw a gargoyle in February, 2018. The report appears on Phantoms and Monsters, and the site's owner said it was originally posted on Reddit in August. Here it is:
... About 6 months ago I saw this insane thing. It was about 3 AM, I had been up late as I normally am. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. It was dark as Hell except for the stars and moon. As I was smoking I heard this noise of something flying. I look up and see this winged creature land on my neighbor's roof and just sit there like a Gargoyle would. I thought I was seeing sh*t or seeing something wrong but then the creature jumped up and flew away and I could see its whole body. It was the size of a small human but massive wings. It reminded me of a Gargoyle. I don't know what the f**k I saw but it was crazy. Has anyone ever had an experience seeing something like this? Humanoid creature with wings?
Lon Stickler, the owner of Phantoms and Monsters, contacted the Redditor who had posted the story and asked for more details. Their response follows:
... I couldn't see the creature's face because it was dark and it was on the roof facing away from me. It looked black with a wing span upon flight maybe 4 - 5ft. The creature itself while crouched on the roof looked the size of a smaller human maybe 4ft. I watched it trying to figure out what I was looking at, for maybe 1 minute, then it jumped and flew off. Even when it flew away it still looked on the shorter end. As it flew, its legs hung but still in an almost crouching position. It wasn't a massive creature but it was definitely humanoid in appearance. 
Some of you may know that Abington is located within the Bridgewater Triangle, an area in Massachusetts famous for paranormal activity. I don't think anyone has reported a gargoyle there before, but people have seen other large winged creatures in the Triangle. In 1971, a police officer driving to his home in Easton late one night saw something more than six feet tall and with a wingspan of eight to twelve feet. As he drove towards it the creature flew straight up into the air and off over the trees. The officer reported it but investigators found no sign of the creature. (This account is included in Loren Coleman's 2001 book Mysterious America.)

A scene from the 1972 movie Gargoyles
For those skeptics out there, it's important to note the Hockomock Swamp sits in the center of the Bridgewater Triangle, and many large birds live in swamps, including the great blue heron, which has a wingspan of 5 - 6 feet. However, great blue herons aren't usually active at night. There are numerous species of owl in Massachusetts, though, and the great horned owl has a wingspan of up to 5 feet. Owls are active at night.

On the other hand, owls aren't really "humanoid in appearance" and people have been seeing strange flying creatures for years. I don't think they can all be misidentified owls. I don't know what people are seeing. I guess I'll just wait and see if gargoyles start increasing in Massachusetts. And then I'll start locking my windows at night!


Special thanks to my friends Steve and Cornelia for bringing this story to my attention.

October 02, 2018

Cat Folklore, Part II: Black Cats at Halloween

Despite New England's rich history of witchcraft and ghosts, Halloween has only been celebrated here since the mid-19th century. The first English settlers were Puritan and abstained from celebrating holidays like Christmas and Halloween. The Algonquians who lived here before them of course did not observe Halloween, which is of European origin.

Things changed in the 19th century when large numbers of Irish and Scottish immigrants began arriving in New England. They brought their observance of Halloween with them. Although there were tensions between these newer Gaelic arrivals and the Puritan's Yankee descendants, the Yankees did slowly adopt Halloween as a holiday. By the early 20th century it was widely celebrated among both children and adults in New England and other parts of North America. 
An early 20th century black cat doorstop.

 Now, onto the cats. The black cat was a popular Halloween symbol and appears in many descriptions of the holiday from that time. For example, the November 1, 1912 edition of The Vermont Phoenix describes the following party held by the Brattleboro Baptist Bible school:
... about 200 persons were present. Halloween games were played. The junior department held a party in the chapel, which was decorated with jack o'lanterns and black cats, the children making the decorations. Halloween stunts were performed. 
According to November 4, 1909 issue of The Republican, black cats were also popular in Belfast, Maine:
The Halloween Whist party under the direction of the Universalist Social Aid in Memorial Hall last Friday evening was a social and financial success.... The main hall was decorated with pine trees, Halloween crepe paper, black cats and jack-o-lanterns...
The Belfast socialites were quite busy that Halloween; there were multiple parties to attend:
Last Monday night the young ladies of the Biliken club entertained the young gentlemen at a Halloween supper at Pensobscot cottage on the Allyn shore, with Miss Katherine E. Brier as hostess, assisted by Mrs. Luville J. Pottle.... The table decorations and place cards were in the form of sunflowers. The fortune cards were decorated with cupids, witches, black cats, etc. 
And the October 29, 1910 issue of The Norwich Bulletin gave the following advice to Connecticut Halloween party hostesses:
The candle shades to give the effect of ghosts and witches should be of red and black coloring. Quaint little ones with the heads of black cats on them may be purchased at any store, but clever fingers can easily make them at home.
But why stop at candle shades? Why not have real live black cats in your party?
A pumpkin as centerpiece might hold a bowl of yellow chrysanthemums and if the hostess owns or can borrow a couple of live black cats it would give a most realistic effect to have these in the dining room rubbing against the guests. 
Let's just hope your guests aren't allergic to cats. Newspapers at this time were also filled with ads for Halloween decorations, many of them black cat themed. For example, here is one in the October 29, 1912 issue of The Bridgeport Daily Farmer from Radford's department store in Connecticut:

Using black cats as party decor probably doesn't seem strange to readers of this blog. Witches, ghosts and black cats are all just part of Halloween's festive ambience, right? But for our New England ancestors, Halloween represented a big shift in how they viewed the supernatural. Things that are now just considered spooky fun were once a very serious matter.

Cats, often black in color, appear in the 17th century witch trial accounts, and witch trials were very, very serious matters. For example, in 1692 a Boston serving girl named Mercy Short was tormented by demons after she taunted Sarah Good, who had been jailed for witchcraft. Short's demonic possession drew the attention of Boston's leading ministers, including Cotton Mather, and even of the colony's governor. During one of her fits, Mercy revealed that the Devil's "Book of Death" had been hidden in the attic of a neighbor's house. If someone could retrieve it her torments would stop. The governor commanded a servant to search the attic:
When the Servant was Examining the place directed, a great Black Cat, never before known to bee in the House, jumping over him, threw him into such a Fright and Sweat, that altho' hee were one otherwise of Courage enough, he desisted at that Time from looking any further (from Cotton Mather's A Brand Pluck'd out of the Burning).
Clearly, that black cat was not a laughing matter. Around the same time, Stephen Johnson of Andover, Massachusetts, age 14, confessed to the judges in Salem that the Devil had invited him at midsummer to become a witch. The Devil appeared first as a bird, then a black cat, and finally as a man before Stephen sold his soul to him. Mercy Wardwell, another Andover teenager, confessed that the Devil appeared to her as two cats.

The Devil was not the only one who took feline form. Witches often appeared as cats as well. The Cape Cod witch Liza Tower Hill took the form of a cat to terrorize a family who mistreated her daughter. John Godfrey, a witch from Haverhill, Massachusetts, took the form of a black cat and threatened Isabelle Holdred in her sleep after they argued over money.

Stories like these persisted in New England long after the witch trials ended. Sallie Somers, the alleged witch of Southwest Harbor, Maine, would spy on her neighbors in the shape of black cat. She died in 1832 when someone shot her in feline form with a silver bullet. In 1892, Clifton Johnson recorded a story in Western Massachusetts about a black cat whose paw got caught under a millstone. When the miller got home he found his wife with a damaged hand and knew she was a witch.

In the 1930s, people in New Hampshire also told a story about a witch in the shape of a black cat to Eva Speare for her book New Hampshire Folk Tales. And even in the 2000s, Christopher Balzano was told a story about a witch's ghost appearing as a black cat that walked on its hind legs for his book Dark Woods: Cults, Crime, and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest.

I don't cite all those stories to scare you, but just to show there is a very persistent tradition linking black cats with witchcraft and the Devil in New England. Given that tradition, it is amazing New Englanders were willing to abandon their superstitions and embrace the witches and black cats of Halloween. Clearly, cultural events like the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution played a big role in changing their minds, but it's still inspiring to read about New Englanders celebrating witches and black cats rather than hanging and shooting them. Things that once were frightening have become fun. Sometimes there is such a thing as progress.